Fun with science: the role of play in learning

Children engaged in a classroom science activity.

“Alright, so we’ve identified ingredients that can produce bubbles, one that changes the color of liquids, and finally, this (I hold up the small paper cup of warm water and yeast mixed together) we have learned is used to help make bread rise. What do you all predict will happen when I add this final ingredient to the others?”

After performing this particular activity for countless birthday parties at the Iowa Children’s Museum, I am unsurprised by the eager response of twelve elementary school-aged children shouting out, “Explosion!”

“Well let’s see if your prediction is correct… 3…2…1…”

You are probably a little familiar with the activity known as Elephant Toothpaste, which takes the common household ingredients of dish soap, food coloring, hydrogen peroxide, and yeast mixed in warm water to produce a warm and foamy mess as the result of an exothermic reaction. On Youtube, the activity is quite popular, with hundreds of videos showing how people have taken the experiment to the extreme. At the Iowa Children’s Museum, it was one of my favorite activities. It also fully embodied the museum’s mission “To inspire every child to imagine, create, discover and explore through the Power of Play.” The museum really emphasized the last element by designating its floor staff as Playologists and encouraging them to interact with and teach guests, both young and old, through play. In this way, the Iowa Children’s Museum differentiated itself from more traditional museums by embracing informal learning methods to present information to its guests.

Play holds a key role in informal learning, which differs from more structured styles of formal instruction associated with educational institutions. As such, various organizations like children’s museums and non-profits such as the National Center for Science Education are investigating ways to use play as an aspect of interest development in science, as well as using play to promote science learning behavior and explore scientific contexts and concepts. Furthermore, while people often think of play in relation to young children, it is also an effective teaching aid for any age level. Even so, play and informal learning are sometimes valued less than formal instruction.

Traditional models of learning

Overheard at the museum: A grandpa was telling his grandkids that they’re not supposed to just ‘do what [they] want,’ that they have to listen to older people because that’s the only way to learn. ‘You can’t learn anything just doing your own thing. You have to listen to teachers. We’re like teachers. Without teachers you never learn anything.’”

The above quote exemplifies a common misconception related to play and its role in learning. Play can be viewed as superfluous, and even counterproductive, when compared to more structured education. In formal, structured education, knowledge is often presented by specialized personnel using a highly systemized and verbal curriculum and pedagogy that focuses on training as an end in itself. This type of formal instruction found in many classroom setting is referred to by Rogoff et al. as Assembly-Line Instruction (ALI), and it has a few defining features. In ALI, children are segregated for instruction into a bureaucratically controlled setting, which is set apart from the ordinary activities of a community. The learner is motivated by extrinsic rewards, which in part stems from the instructor’s goal of sorting learners by their classroom achievements. Sorting learners is achieved through assessments, which measure how well a learner received the instruction, and feedback takes the forms of these extrinsic rewards, praise or threats, and finally, ranking against other learners.1

The type of formal instruction found in a classroom setting is referred to by Rogoff et al as Assembly-Line Instruction(ALI), and it has a few defining features. In ALI, children are segregated for instruction into a bureaucratically controlled setting, which is set apart from the ordinary activities of a community. The learner is motivated by extrinsic rewards, which in part stems from the instructor’s goal of sorting learners by their classroom achievements. Sorting learners is achieved through assessments, which measure how well a learner received the instruction, and feedback takes the forms of these extrinsic rewards, praise or threats, and finally, ranking against other learners.2

The organization of the whole group is unilateral, and it is expected that the instructor will control the learners’ pace, attention, and motivation in the attempt to “transmit” information. Communication of the desired information and skills takes form in a limited range of formats, usually verbal or written. It is expected that learning occurs through lessons, exercises, and tests, and assessments take the form of quiz questions in which the questioner is expected to already knows the answer. The overall goal of ALI is to transmit isolated pieces of information and skills, unusually for the purpose of certification, which in turn, is a prerequisite for the learners’ eventual inclusion in the adult world they have been separated from during their time in school. Essentially, “Schooling depends on legally prescribed compulsory attendance of all children and externally focused assessment to control and attempt to motivate children’s voluntary interest in engaging with activities.”3

The main issue with this model is the forced nature of learning, which is dependent upon learners embracing the system of extrinsic rewards and punishments. This model also views learning in terms of the end-result rather than as a process. Organizations and institutions attempting to embrace informal learning models, often run into challenges. For people who are familiar with only one learning paradigm, it can be difficult to understand and participate in another. For instance, Rogoff et al observed that classroom teachers often commented on the difficulty of giving up “control” of the classroom, which went against the techniques and philosophy that were emphasized within their own teacher education.4

Assembly-Line Instruction clearly offers little space for play in the learning process, partly because there is no emphasis on the process itself. How does informal learning methods compare to ALI then? Rogoff et al define informal learning as, “Nondidactic, highly collaborative, embedded in meaningful activity, and initiated by the learner’s interest or choice (rather than resulting from external demands or requirements) and does not involve assessment external to the activity.”5 Informal learning centers on the learner’s choices and motivations to observe and participate in group endeavors. Though play is not always incorporated into these productive activities, the following examples will illustrate how play can be used as both a way to motivate involvement as well as to explore a new concept or skill.

Learning through play

Overheard at the museum: “A kid was looking at the ‘When I Grow Up…’ wall and their parent asked them to follow and head further into the museum. The kid replied ‘Sorry, I was learning.’”

“A dad and his daughter were looking at Peter on their way out and the dad said, ‘I didn’t know turtles took naps! Do you think they snore?’ and the little girl said ‘What? Turtles don’t SNORE!’ in the cutest ‘Uhh, seriously Dad?’ voice ever.”

In her reflection of children at play, Broadhead recognizes some of the issues with traditional schooling that I previously mentioned. She notes that adults’ preconceptions of play and learning can cloud their understanding of young children’s capabilities and potential. This is because ‘statutory’ guidelines predominant in formal instruction are inevitably limited in their capacity for recognizing the full extent of a young child’s knowledge and understanding.6 This despite the fact that functioning effectively in our increasingly complex society requires active management of interactions with others and play is an effective means of developing these skills. Additionally, imaginative play is thought to diminish aggression levels and promote emotional intelligence.

For Broadhead, these results are achieved through a particular style of play that she refers to as existing within a cooperative domain. This domain of play is characterized as consisting of groups of players remaining predominantly in one location. All the players share an understanding of goal orientation and remain engaged in the play until the goals are achieved. The style of play itself is highly imaginative in its use of ideas and materials as play themes are taken up and explored. Additionally, altercations between players are solved within the play as a problem-solving activity.7 An instance of cooperative play can be seen in this example from the Iowa Children’s Museum:

“I had a birthday party in the grocery store and there were a bunch of parents with the birthday party. A little boy in the party finished ringing up his food and the girl being the cashier told him his total. The little boy’s mom and dad were both watching from a few feet away, and the little boy immediately ran to his dad to ask for money. The dad actually gave the little boy his credit card to pretend to pay with.”

Broadhead explains that when children are able to operate within the Cooperative domain with others who can manage this domain effectively, even if the learner is not able to fully manage the high-level of play themselves, they are still functioning intellectually and socially. Furthermore, the more cooperative the play, the more likely it is that children will connect with and understand other children’s knowledge along with a deeply fulfilling, emotional engagement with the world around them. In the end, “Sociable and cooperative endeavours expose children to other children’s perspectives and they become experts for one another, scaffolding their own and their peer’s learning experiences.”8 This type of cooperative play can also be used to bridge the knowledge and experience of learners with differing language and cultural backgrounds.

In a study on play in multilingual and multicultural contexts, Long et al., recognize that play is a culturally constructed and mediated activity, which means it can vary in its function across different settings. In their study, the researchers found that through play, children demonstrated skill, insight, sensitivity, and expertise as they drew syncretically from multiple worlds in order to create new worlds in which they learned from, and taught, each other. “The children in our studies were serious and intentional about their play and about their roles as teachers and learners.”9 Through this play, the children learned language, literacies, and cultural roles and routines as they experimented and negotiated with their play partners.

Long et al. discovered successful learning through play required the following conditions. First, children had to be allowed extended time to play and their play had to take place in settings where they were comfortable enough to take risks with language, literacies, and cultural roles and routines. During play, children needed to trust that their own ways of knowing would be valued and not marginalized. Finally, the children’s play had purpose: that is, play with their peers and siblings was meaningful enough to motivate them to draw on diverse experiences and resources to negotiate successful interactions. This leads Long et al. to conclude that educators can create successful informal learning experiences by designing for the same level of comfort, trust, and purpose in their educational activities.

Returning to the grocery store play example, we see that adults can actively take part in play with children, something these two studies do not take into consideration. In terms of science education though, Bulunuz and Jarret have investigated the importance of play as an aspect of interest development in science within the classroom. This study looked at not only students, but also preservice teachers engaged in science education. Their research suggests that background experiences that include hands-on science experiments in elementary school, play with LEGOs and science toys, visits to zoos and museums, and outdoor explorations all helped to develop interest in science among science majors, scientists, and preservice teachers. However, Bulunuz and Jarret also wanted to learn how interest in science could be developed among adults who failed to develop an interest as children.10

What the researchers find is that playful experiences are important in the development of interest in science for adults. Bulunuz and Jarret write, “Anecdotally, we both know of teachers who were uninterested in science at the beginning of our courses but who have become very inspiring science teachers.”11 The researchers are referencing a hands-on science methods class they designed to spark interest in science. In their course planning, the researchers ensured that the activities involved high levels of inquiry, which allowed students to pose their own questions, design experiments, and interpret their results. Activities that incorporated all the elements were rated by learners as the highest on fun, learning, and interest.12 Ultimately, the researchers concluded that interest in science is developed through playful, childlike investigations and even adults "must be allowed to play, especially if they have not already developed an interest in science.”

Play in action: Promoting science learning behavior

Overheard at the museum: “I was passing City Money when I overheard a dad telling their child the ATM stands for automatic teller machine. I’ve never heard that in my life! Learned something new today, and that’s the power of play folks.”

Worch and Haney examined the small but growing number of children’s zoos designed from a play-based learning perspective. In particular, they focused on an exhibit from the Toledo Zoo called Nature’s Neighborhood, which opened to the public in 2009. This exhibit was designed to foster science learning behaviors and appreciation of nature among the zoo’s visitors. As part of the design, the zoo had to identify the type of science learning behaviors they wanted to promote as well as the ways in which children could engage with the exhibit through playful and non-playful behavior. Similar to the conclusions drawn by Bulunuz and Jarrett, these researchers found that children engaged in significantly more playful than non-playful behavior in this exhibit with over three-quarters of all science learning behavior occurring during play.13

It is important to understand how Worch and Haney defined both play and science learning behaviors. For play, the researchers identified five different categories: sensory, constructive, dramatic, games, and functional. Sensory play is very tactile and can include behaviors like touching water, leaves, rocks, fur, and other elements of the exhibit. Constructive play refers to the act of creating or constructing something, such as building a sandcastle, fort, or dam out of available materials. Dramatic play is the act of performing fantasy actions and/or vocalizing fantasy situations, like dressing up in animal costume and pretending to be that animal. The games category is similar to cooperative play because it involves learners engaging with others in an activity with clear purpose and rules, with tag being a simple example. Finally, functional play involves repetitive muscle movement with or without objects, including locomotive actions like running and climbing. A learner can be engaged in just one or multiple categories of play at any given moment.14

Work and Haney then identify science learning behaviors to investigate how these categories of play can be used in their promotion. The three categories of science learning behavior identified are: observing, exploring, and cause and effect. Observing occurs when a participant watches closely and is hands-off, meaning they are focused visually or aurally on an object or another individual. Exploring behavior is defined by a participant’s interaction with their environment and can include making an inquiry or carrying out a plan. The last science behavior of cause and effect happens when a participant makes a deliberate action and expects a certain outcome, such as throwing a paper airplane with the expectation that it will glide through the air.15 With the examples offered by these definitions, we can draw a connection between the science learning behaviors and specific categories of play.

With the Nature Neighborhood, the designers attempted to build a learning environment within a safe physical play space. This was achieved by supplying an abundance of fixed and loose natural parts, such as rocks, water features, trees, sand and animals, as well as manufactured loose parts that include tools, role-playing and construction materials. The inclusion of these elements allows guests to play in a variety of ways while simultaneously engaging them in inquiry science learning. Beyond this, vigorous loco-motor and game playing can be encouraged with the strategic placement of open space between high-value programmed spaces. The results of this study indicate that children, regardless of age or gender, are provided frequent and diverse opportunities for all types of play throughout the exhibit space, leading to greater engagement with the space. As such, “children are able to interact with nature physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively.”16

In the end, Worch and Haney’s research substantiates the claim that children do engage in science learning behavior while they participate in safe physical play. At the same time, they are also aware of the skepticism many teachers, administrators, and parents have regarding playful learning for the reasons I previously mentioned. If we are to reform older models of instruction, then we need to begin by educating children, parents, and other adults about the value of play for learning. It also requires reflection on the part of educators as to the ways we choose to engage with learners. And so, I return to my experience with elephant toothpaste.

Striking a balance between structure and play


My hand tips the water and yeast mixture into the bottle and the room fills with excited squeals as a purple foam erupts. It’s not exactly an explosion, but most of the children are satisfied with the result of our little experiment.

“Ok everyone! I want you to hold up one finger, just like this. Now I’m going to ask you to touch the foam and I want you to tell me if you notice anything unusual.” Twelve hands quickly plunge into the mixture and I hear one child proclaim, “It’s warm!”

“That’s right! When we mixed in the yeast, we created an exothermic reaction, which simply means we created heat.”

To this day, I am never quite sure if any birthday party guest remembers the term ‘exothermic reaction.’ For me though, I will always think of the term synonymously with this delightful activity.

In their research on the children’s exhibit at the Toledo Zoo, Worch and Haney examined a space rather than a facilitated STEM activity, but their exploration of different styles of play which promote science learning behaviors can be applied to these informal learning activities. While demonstrating elephant toothpaste, I would ask the guests to identify the various ingredients through visual and olfactory observation. Based on these observations, the children could draw upon their past experiences to identify the different substances, which was especially important in identifying the yeast along with its function. Through collaboration of shared knowledge and experience, the children were then asked to predict the outcome of mixing all the ingredients together, essentially establishing cause and effect.

At the same time, the success of the activity was guaranteed because I controlled the amounts of each ingredient and the order in which they were mixed together, which runs counter to informal learning through play. A truly informal approach to elephant toothpaste would simply provide all the components to the participants along with the time to experiment with different combinations of the ingredients. In fact, I have watched a Youtube video of young adults engaged in this exact scenario and it is apparent how much they enjoyed the experience, even if the final result was unsuccessful.

On the other hand, as a facilitator I needed to balance the goals of informal learning against the constraints of time and supplies available to me. This means the birthday party guests were deprived of the opportunity to engage in exploration, which we have seen to be a significant aspect of play and science learning behavior. The reality is that within the scope of a birthday party at the museum, the activity needed to take place within a span of ten minutes, mess needed to be kept to a minimum, and, for entertainment value, the experiment needed to be successful on the first attempt (instances of expired yeast used in the experiment resulted in failure and disappointed children). Similar to teachers trying to implement informal learning methods in the classroom, we may need to deal with circumstances that make it difficult to relinquish control over an activity. Therefore, it is important to strike a balance between structure and play. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that educators should strive to design activities that promote comfort, trust, and purpose for participants, thus allowing the space for play.

These studies, along with my own experience working at the Iowa Children’s Museum and the National Center for Science Education, show that the best way to learn science is not from a textbook, but rather through playful experimentation. However, more research and education on the role of play in learning needs to take place, especially as it applies to adults. Just as you are never too old to play, you’re also never too old to discover a love of science. We as educators simply need to make it a fun endeavor for all.


1From "The Organization of Informal Learning," by B. Rogoff, M. Callanan, K. Gutiérrez, and F. Erickson, 2016, Review of Research in Education, p. 371.

2Ibid., p. 372-373.

3Ibid. p. 389.

4Ibid. p. 376.

5Ibid. p. 376.

6From "Developing an Understanding of Young Children's Learning Through Play: The Place of Observation, Interaction and Reflection" by P. Broadhead, 2006, British Educational Research Journal, p. 202.

7Ibid., p. 207.

8Ibid., p. 202.

9From "Intentionality and Expertise: Learning from Observations of Children at Play in Multilingual, Multicultural Contexts" by S. Long, D. Volk, and E. Gregory, 2007, Anthropology & Education Quarterly, p. 254.

10From "Play as an Aspect of Interest Development in Science," by M. Bulunuz and O. Jarrett, 2015, in Interest in Mathematics and Science Learning, edited by A. Renninger, M. Nieswandt and S. Hidi, Havertown: American Educational Research Association, p. 153.

11Ibid., p. 166.

12Ibid., p. 165.

13From "Assessing a Children's Zoo Designed to Promote Science Learning Behavior through Active Play: How Does It Measure Up?", by E. Worch and J. Haney, 2011, Children, Youth and Environments 21(2), p. 383.

14Ibid., p. 388.

15Ibid., p. 389.

16Ibid., 404.

NCSE Gratudate Student Outreach Fellow Christie Vogler
Short Bio

Christie Vogler is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Iowa with an emphasis on archaeology.